Pandora Papers: Some of Asia's elite in the spotlight

Names include about a dozen prominent Malaysians, including at least four politicians

Dozens of influential Asians, including ruling party politicians, are among thousands of people around the world linked to offshore companies or trusts in the latest leak of confidential financial information dubbed the Pandora Papers.

The nearly three-terabyte data dump by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is the network's largest so far, even compared to 2016's Panama Papers, and more than double the size of 2017's Paradise Papers.

About a dozen prominent Malaysians, including at least four active politicians, are among those named in the 12 million files making up the Pandora Papers.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said yesterday he was seeking legal advice after claiming that news website Malaysiakini had suggested "that Capital Investment (Labuan) Limited is still associated with me instead of being part of the Kenanga Group".

"By June 2010, I had assumed the role of chief executive officer at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd and had, therefore, taken steps to relinquish my executive and directorship roles in the Kenanga Group," the senator said in a statement.

According to Malaysiakini, Zahid Hamidi, president of the ruling Umno party who is facing dozens of graft charges, is named as a director in a British Virgin Islands (BVI) company called Breedon Limited. The company was incorporated in 1996 when the former deputy premier won a stiff battle for the party's youth wing leadership.

The likes of influential former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, who led the powerful Council of Eminent Persons when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to power between 2018 and 2020, as well as lawmaker William Leong, an MP from Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, have insisted their dealings in offshore firms and accounts under their control are completely legal.

Datuk Seri Anwar has filed an emergency motion for the Pandora Papers to be debated in Parliament.

Two senior Cabinet ministers in Indonesia and a number of businessmen are also listed in the Pandora Papers. Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto told news magazine Tempo he had no knowledge of the shell companies in BVI he allegedly established.

A spokesman for Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan confirmed that he had served in a company registered in Panama, Petrocapital SA, from 2007 to 2010. Mr Luhut, who was not in government then, stepped down from the company due to "obstacles related to geographical conditions, culture and investment certainty" and decided to "focus on business in Indonesia".

One of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's top campaign donors, Mr Dennis Uy, ranked the sixth wealthiest man in the country, appears in the Papers as the beneficial owner of BVI firm China Shipbuilding and Exports Corp. Transport Minister Arthur Tugade and his children, meanwhile, controlled Solart Holdings Limited, a BVI company that appears to have been operating at least since 2007.

Ex-finance minister Milwida Guevara told the online news site Rappler this was a red flag as Mr Tugade has never declared his offshore assets in the yearly disclosure statement required of civil servants.

Former elections commission chief Andy Bautista insisted that his family purchased offshore firm Baumann Enterprises upon the advice of the Bank of Singapore as "normal private banking practice to facilitate our family's desired objective of pooling our assets together".

While it is not illegal to make use of shell companies or hold assets offshore, these structures help to obscure true owners and control of such wealth. Many of those who have found themselves in the spotlight face allegations ranging from corruption to money laundering and tax avoidance. Former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif was ousted after the release of the Panama Papers in 2016.

The names of prominent members of the current Pakistani government, donors to Prime Minister Imran Khan's party and family members of the country's powerful military generals are listed in the Pandora Papers.

Mr Khan, who took office on an anti-graft platform, responded by tweeting: "My government will investigate all our citizens mentioned in the Pandora Papers and if any wrongdoing is established we will take appropriate action."

In India, 300 people are named, among them a sports icon, a disgraced businessman, politicians and former government officials.

The Indian Express, which is the local ICIJ partner, has revealed around half a dozen names so far including that of cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar, whose entity in the BVI was liquidated just three months after the Panama Papers expose in 2016.

Mr Anil Ambani, the brother of India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, declared bankruptcy in a United Kingdom case last year but owns at least 18 offshore companies in Jersey, BVI and Cyprus which had borrowed and invested US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion).

In Japan, more than 1,000 companies and individuals have been mentioned, among them some of the biggest names in the corporate world, including Don Quijote discount store chain founder Takao Yasuda and SoftBank Group chairman Masayoshi Son. Both firms denied any wrongdoing.

Entrepreneur Feng Qiya is the only mainland Chinese politician named so far. According to the ICIJ, Ms Feng set up offshore firm Linkhigh Trading in 2016. It had US$2 million in assets and was registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission but is now inactive.

The investigation also names two former Hong Kong leaders - billionaire Tung Chee-hwa and Mr Leung Chun-ying. Mr Tung and his family have registered nearly 30 offshore entities while Mr Leung was listed as the owner of two BVI entities while serving as the territory's chief executive.

• Additional reporting by Raul Dancel, Nirmala Ganapathy, Walter Sim, Elizabeth Law and Arlina Arshad

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2021, with the headline 'Pandora Papers: Some of Asia's elite in the spotlight'. Subscribe